Five Translations
A Laurel Prize Tourney project, by THL Eliane Halevy (mka Jennifer Friedman), Barony of Jararvellir, Kingdom of Northshield
Sponsor: Master Michael Alewright, Kingdom of Æthelmearc
Prepared for the LPT at Northshield First Coronation, October 16, A.S. XXXIX (2004)

The poetry, with comments on the authors and on the process of translating each poem:

General comments by the translator

Vivat the SCA, where one's totally useless French degree can finally come in handy. My first bardic work in the Society was a singable English translation of the song "Belle qui tiens ma vie". Ever since then, I've been pondering and studying the concept of translation, both how it would have been important in period, and how it has since been analyzed as an art and a science.

In the period when these five French poems were written (approx. 1425-1600), there was a particular vogue for translating works of literature. Certainly translation had been an ardent scholarly pursuit in Europe for many centuries (witness the great workshops of translation in Toledo during the Convivencia, where Jewish scholars translated Arabic works into Castilian). The Roman de la Rose, the influential 13th century French allegorical poem, had been translated into Italian, Dutch, and English by the end of the 14th century; Chaucer himself worked on a translation. But the advent of printing, as well as the rise in power of the bourgeois middle class in France and elsewhere, made it possible (and profitable) to translate poetry for pure entertainment value.

I have taken five French poems, written in the 15th and 16th centuries, and translated them into English using a simple technique: do a literal translation, then once I am sure of the meaning, write a new poem using the same rhyme and rhythmic scheme, preserving the unique poetic images and turns-of-phrase where I can. Why two translations? One to capture the meaning (which is often obscure to my 21st-century mind), and one to create a new poem. Languages are unique; no two can capture the same poetic experience with simple word-for-word translation. Art must enter in.

Willis Barnstone, in his book The Poetics of translation, defines the role of the translator in this way: "The translator not only receives from the precursor, but recognizes and resurrects the author and actively determines our understanding, reception, and evaluation of the source in a re-creation that ultimately vies with the original for authority and even originality". The translator is creating a new work that must be judged on two fronts: first, for its fidelity to the intent of the original, and second, for its own sake, for its creativity and merit as a fresh work of literature.

I have made decisions at every step of the process in translating these poems. For example, in reading "L'on verra s'arrêter le mobile du monde" aloud, I was not sure if I was hearing eight syllables or ten in the final six lines. French is a language that depends more on word stresses than syllables in counting poetic meter; often, the poet intends elision and the pronouncing of ordinarily silent syllables to regularize the meter. And sonnets, though people think of them as being highly formalized, do allow for some metrical variety; Mistress Anne le Gris of Ealdormere has been cataloging variations among Elizabethan sonnets for years (see CA #117). I simply could not tell. So I decided to go with eight syllables, which I think gives an unusual pointedness to the end of the poem. Perhaps too much pointedness? You decide.

I invite you to compare the literal and poetic translations for each piece, and see if you can spot the places where I made a decision to stray from the meaning of the original. If you have a background in French, compare the original to my translation, too. Juggling meaning, flow, rhyme, meter, tone, and my own sometimes tenous grasp of the French language (much less the French language from 500 years ago) has been an exercise in controlled creativity, one I would recommend for any bard.


Barnstone, Willis. The Poetics of translation: history, theory, practice. New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Chartier, Alain. The Poetical works of Alain Chartier. Ed. J.C. Laidlaw. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Des Periers, Bonaventure. Novel pastimes and merry tales. Tr. Raymond and Virginia La Charité. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1972.

Fox, John. The Lyric poetry of Charles D'Orléans. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.

Graham, Ann (Lady Anne le Gris). The Sonnet unbound: Elizabethan sonnets as experimental poetry. The Compleat Anachronist #117, Autumn 2002. Milpitas, Calif.: The Society for Creative Anachronism, 2002.

Peletier du Mans, Jacques. Les Oeuvres poétiques. Rochecorbon, France: Editions Charles Gay, [1958].

Vivonne, Héliette. Poésies de Héliette de Vivonne. Paris: Librairie Historique Alph. Margraff, 1932.

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